Under The Sun

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Accountability for government snoops. It's the 2002 federal wiretapping report.

Monday, April 28, 2003

Saturday, April 26, 2003

F of u is a subset of K.

--Anna's (foreign-born) group theory professor

Friday, April 25, 2003

Democracy in the very long term. Is the "open society" sufficiently adaptable and sufficiently robust to compete and survive in the ages (post-Industrial, post-Information, etc.) to come?

Painting with a broad brush, I see three major flaws from which the open society is at risk:

(1) Capitalism. Both Marx and Schumpeter have argued that capitalism is not viable in the very long term. I'm not very familiar with Schumpeter's argument, but Marx's can be paraphrased thus: the natural tendency toward power-law distribtion (few with most, many with little) means that capitalism will always be barely staving off a proletarian revolution. Can the small compromises of the welfare state keep the proletariat pacified indefinitely? Will the overall real standard of living (bang-for-buck) rise fast enough to solve the problem of scarcity in time to prevent the big crunch? Is there room on this planet--are there enough resources--for a worldwide profusion of consumerist capitalist states?--or will we get our act together and find other planets to spread out to? Or--gasp!--will Marx eventually be proved correct?

(2) Idiotocracy. The quality of democratic government is steadily getting worse. Bureaucracy proliferates; the political process seems to preclude candidates with ideas. So far the open society has proved quite good at running itself despite its nominal leaders, but have we really transcended the need for leadership? Ancient Athens hadn't: when the going got tough, the tough got ostracized, and Sparta won the war. If we want to win our current war--the overall war, not merely the small wars--we will have to escape the trap that closed on Athens. So far we have made no obvious moves in that direction.

(3) Equality. Political equality is an enforced lie--well-intentioned, but still a lie--and because it does not correspond to reality, it creates inefficiency. This is related to idiotocracy, of course, but is broader and deeper. The open society in general does not reward merit and does not reward vitality: the weaker are supported, at the cost of a disproportionate share of our total resources, while the strongest are left to fend for themselves. Again: there is a strong moral case for this, but it does have consequences. One consequence is that a less equal society--a meritocracy, perhaps, or even a social-darwinist machine state--would in theory be able to out-think or out-work ours. Will the unfreedom of such societies cost more efficiency than their advantages gain? Or will their willingness to embrace "immoral" new technologies--genetic engineering, perhaps, or nanotechnology, or cybernetics, or whatever else moves from science-fiction into reality--give them an insurmountable advantage?

It's an old truth that winners don't adapt. The open society won the race from agriculture through industry to information. Now we're pausing for breath, and letting--helping--the rest of the world catch up. (This is a good thing, of course.) Will we be able to shift back into high gear in time to take the lead in the next race? Will we care to try? Should we care to try? One thing is clear: as ever, we--humanity--are too tangled in the present to take proper account of the future. The future, of course, will happen regardless. But, as ever, some us hope that trying to predict it, or at least understand it, might ease some of the growing pains.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

"You can't borrow serotonin without having to pay it back. With interest."

--Emily Grainger

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Naughty speech redux. Eugene Volokh defends (only on principle, of course) Sen. Rick Santorum's reading of US law. It seems to me that Prof. Volokh is letting his libertarian bias trump common sense; I'm not sure that matters to his argument, but it does illustrate again that two very similar minds can disagree about what speech is worthy of condemnation, let alone punishment.

My question is, why do people want to restrict remarks like Lott's, Cubin's, Santorum's? The only legitimate ground for restricting speech is that it's dangerous--else you're just trying to restrict belief, which is impossible. So how might a racist or homophobic statement be dangerous? It might threaten, but if so it's hate speech; none of these were. It might incite, but that too is actionable, and clearly wasn't the case here. No, our objection to the three Congresscritters' remarks is merely that they were wrong. And the proper response to wrong speech is not condemnation or punishment; it is correction. Rather than calling for censure, officially or otherwise, we should emphasize our competing, and morally superior, positive position: we should vocally support equal rights, and encourage our representatives to do the same.

Peace in the Middle East? Certain politicians are against it.

Monday, April 21, 2003

"Sentimentality is feeling that shuts out action, real or potential. It is self-centered and a species of make-believe. William James gives the example of the woman who sheds tears at the heroine's plight on the stage while her coachman is freezing outside the theater."


Re: Rousseau. "[As reason] turns itself into the absolute opposite of nature and forgets nature in itself, all the more will a self-preservation gone wild regress into nature."--Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Jean-Jacques Rousseau became famous when he won the prize offered by the Dijon Academy for an essay on the question whether progress in the arts and sciences had led to progress in manners and morals. Rousseau's answer, as we all learned in high school, was "no". This fact is given in many history classes as supporting evidence for the thesis that Rousseau did not believe in the project of the Enlightenment--did not believe, even, in the value of "culture" at all. That thesis is false.

First, notes Barzun, "it was the Academy, a large group of intellectuals, who raised the doubt"--their posing the question shows that it was on the mind of the age, and that it was not considered obvious. More important, the ideological use to which Rousseau's answer is put--of which more in a moment--obscures the fact that, taken simply on its own terms, it is just plain fact: humans in general are not more moral now than they were in the past. They may or may not be less moral, but Rousseau at the time took no position on that second question; he merely pointed out that "culture" has historically shown no tendency whatsoever to be any freer from vice or sin. We do reject some old errors or systems, of course--human slavery, for example--but our "advanced" thought and technology enable us to make new errors that our ancestors could never have imagined.

The myth that Rousseau was anti-"culture", rather than merely critical of culture, was propagated in part by Voltaire, who was too busy defending the Enlightenment from the church to take kindly to criticism of it from others. Furthermore, people who actually were anti-Enlightenment raised Rousseau as their own banner. But the return to nature, the apotheosis of the "noble savage", was not Rousseau's idea: it certainly did not originate with him--as Barzun says, "primitivism" has been one of the persistent themes of the modern age--and he did not endorse it. He was speaking as a theoretical historian, and his normative point was, again, not positive but critical: "progress" causes new problems, and is not to be exalted as the cure for all ills.

What of the famous line, "Men are born free, and everywhere they are in chains"? The next sentence says: "I will now endeavor to show how they", the chains, "are legitimate." The book is titled The Social Contract; a contract is, indeed, a kind of chain. When Hobbes advocates the same thing, we accuse him--perhaps rightly--of too much chain; Locke we uphold as having struck the right balance. Perhaps Rousseau seeks to leave the chains looser than Locke--and if so perhaps he was right, as the current American turn away from centralized government suggests. In any case he is not a reactionary; he is trying to come to grips with the fundamental political question of his age, and his answer is thoughtful, and still worth considering.

[When my high-school humanities teachers told us about Rousseau--repeating false myths left and right--my response was, "That's stupid. How could any sane man believe that?" According to Barzun, my judgment was correct: none could, and in fact Rousseau did not. For further enlightenment, consult Barzun, From Dawn To Decadence, pp. 382ff., or the works of Rousseau himself.]

"The motives behind scientism are culturally significant. They have been mixed, as usual: genuine curiosity in the search for truth; the rage for certainty and for unity; and the snobbish desire to earn the label scientist when that became a high social and intellectual rank. But these efforts, even though vain, have not been without harm, to the inventors and to the world at large. The "findings" have inspired policies affecting daily life that were enforced with the same absolute assurance as earlier ones based on religion. At the same time, the works in the realm of intuition, the gifted finessers--artists, moralists, philosophers, historians, political theorists, and theologians--were diverted from their proper task, while others were looking on them with disdain as dabblers in the suburbs of Truth. The case of Karl Marx is typical. Infatuated with the kudos of science, he persuaded himself and his millions of followers in and out of the Soviet Union that he had at last formulated the mechanics of history and could predict the future scientifically. (One can find Marx and Lenin in the otherwise admirable Dictionary of Scientific Biography. They were included under pressure, not by the free choice of the editors.)


Saturday, April 19, 2003

"Religion is a feeling. It combines humility with wonder."

--Jacques Barzun, From Dawn To Decadence

"From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away."

--W.G. Sebald

"I hate to lie, but unfortunately have come to loathe
the insatiable, unsheathed claws of truth."

--Mark Ford, "One Figures", Soft Sift

"Poetry needn't tote barges and bales of verisimilitude to lift some meaning from the real."

--Albert Mobilio

Apparently I don't blog much during Pesach, either. But I have a backlog of NDPR stuff building up; when I get to it, I'm sure I'll have some deep thoughts to post.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

"Here are three words that land with a thunk: 'gender', 'writing', and 'identity'."

--Claire Dederer

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Philosophy Haiku, by Josh Cherniss. (Link via OxBlog.)

Hi to readers conscientious enough to follow the link from OxBlog (I can't get the permalink to work, sorry). As you may have noticed, David doesn't seem to have read my post far enough to see what it was actually saying--he got the part he read right enough, but he missed my main point. I'm still not sure whether that main point is correct, but I am sure that it's an important question. Please enlighten me--andyb (at) bundy223 (dot) org.

"Different periods conceive differently and each much be granted its premise before one judges its conclusions, in art or any other form of expression. This fair play does not exclude preferring the products of one age to those of another, but it does avoid blindness."

--Jacques Barzun, From Dawn To Decadence

"I bet the human mind is a kludge."

--Marvin Minsky

Monday, April 14, 2003

A new poem. I have added Granite Intrusive, by Dick Barnes, to the poetry section of my homepage.

Conservatives on witch-hunts. The OxBloggers are busily decrying a remark made on the House floor by Representative Barbara Cubin (R-WY). Their crusade is misguided on several levels.

First, Rep. Cubin's remarks may or may not have actually been "racist"; we'll never know, because she was interrupted (by Rep. Mel Watt) before she could finish her sentence. What she actually said was: "One amendment today said we could not sell guns to anybody under drug treatment. So does that mean if you go into a black community, you cannot sell a gun to any black person, or does that mean because my--". This can be read as a suggestion that all blacks are drug users. It can also be read as an attempt (rather infelicitous, but she was speaking extemporaneously) to draw an analogy between laws that target 'all people in drug treatment' and laws that target 'all blacks'. It seems plain to me from the evidence cited in the post linked above that the latter was at least much closer to Rep. Cubin's intent. But the crusade to censure Cubin doesn't merely disagree with that interpretation; it simply ignores it. David Adesnik writes: "From what I can tell, this is not a sophisticated argument about the nature of causation, but rather a crude suggestion that drug addiction is a black problem." Well, David, from what I can tell, you're wrong. A wiser, cooler head might infer from this that there's a reasonable disagreement here, not merely a sandbagging operation by a bunch of racists in defense of their own.

But quite apart from the merits or demerits of this particular case, the rush to condemn Rep. Cubin's mal mot is nothing more than a politically-correct witch-hunt. For neoconservatives in particular, it is a descent to the level of the opponent. "The principle that citizens should be punished for improper speech is the first step on a short road to hell"[*]--regardless of whether the offending speech was accidental, stupid, or even honest. If Rep. Cubin offended anyone, it would be polite for her to apologize; on the other hand, if Rep. Watt, for example, turned out to have attacked Cubin for something she did not actually say/mean, it would be polite for him to apologize. But apology is a courtesy; atonement--as prescribed by, in this case, retributive justice--is something else entirely. And to require atonement for mere speech is a colossally bad idea.

What about Trent Lott? This requires atonement--from me and anyone who agrees with me who failed to defend Sen. Lott's right to speak. Hairs can be split in an attempt to distinguish his case from Rep. Cubin's, but that's just sophistry; the fact is that we--everyone who called for Lott's ouster--were just plain wrong. The legal right to free speech only protects the speaker from legal consequences, but the moral right to free speech should--must--protect more. Clearly there is a line to be drawn somewhere: if you believes that Rep. Cubin or Sen. Lott is a racist, you have every right to vote against her or him in the next election. But it seems to me that the line must be drawn between past and future: an effect on future decisions is (merely) a consequence, but an effect on decisions already made is a punishment. Those who intend to speak publically must always consider their future, but they should never have to fear for their past. Or, I think, for their present: 'if you say that we will censure you' is little different in principle from 'if you say that we will jail you'. We may consider what has been said, but we may act only on our considerations, not on the speech itself.

I can see that this is a hard line to draw; the distinctions I'm trying to make are not obvious. But they are crucial if speech is to really be free.

[*: I have no idea who said this; I saw it quoted without attribution. In any case, it's true.]

In case you haven't noticed, I don't blog much on weekends.

Friday, April 11, 2003

"With little risk of being misunderstood, but with much risk of being thought illiterate."

--Arthur Quinn, Figures of Speech

(Quoted by John Derbyshire, toward the end of this beautiful rant, which you should all read.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

"I SHOULDN'T be so happy. After all, I'm a right-wing deathbeast, and the end (or near end) of a war should upset me, because we conservatives lust for war all the time. Except when we have to fight it ourselves, of course. Being chickenhawks and all.

"And the toppling of a fascist dictator should have me all weepy and nostalgic for Hitler. Because I'm a fascist, according to much of the mail I receive.

"Those Iraqis dancing in the streets? That should really piss me off, because I want to oppress them and steal their oil. Why are they even able to dance? I was promised 500,000 murders, yet thus far only 1,000 or so innocents have died.

"So why am I so damn happy? I really can't explain.

"I'd go and ask some oppression-hating anti-fascist peace activists about it, but for some reason they're all incredibly depressed."

--Tim Blair

"To explain the curious fact that the Middle Ages valued the ancients enough to keep their works copied but did not breed Humanists calls for a Theory of Aspect. It would state that an object or idea is rarely seen in the round. Like a mountain, it presents a variety of faces. Moved by an ulterior purpose, observers take a few of these for the whole. This is a cultural generality. It accounts for the surprising differences in the value put on the same artist or thinker at different times and for the different pasts depicted by different historians. This partiality should not be surprising; it is a familiar face of life: each individual "takes" only some elements of experience, and that spontaneous choice governs tastes, career, estimates of worth, and the feel of life itself."


This is precisely why some form of mysticism is essential to a correct view of reality: mysticism infers the faces that our eyes--even aided by the instruments of science--can't see.

"Dress has of course never been rational, except in Tahiti."


Tuesday, April 08, 2003

"The astute Chinese have a character for heart-and-mind. They perceived that the urge to reason is itself a drive from the heart, which explains why rationalists are often fanatics."


As you may notice, I'm currently reading Jacques Barzun's From Dawn To Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. I'm not sure whether to recommend it to those whose educations did not include a survey course in the humanities: on one hand, it is such a course, but on the other, Barzun moves so nimbly that I'm not sure how much sense it would make to someone who didn't already know what he's talking about. To those who can handle being confused, though, and perhaps are willing to do a little extra research (perhaps just googling) on the side, it's as concise a guide as can be written.

"Que scais-je?"--What do I know?

--The motto of Michel de Montaigne

"[W]hen [Montaigne] calls Man ondoyant et divers, a phrase so precise that it is difficult to translate--"wavelike and varying" will have to do--he replaced one conception of the individual by another, deeper and richer."


"Ethical opinion in our day, while recognizing [Montaigne's] genius and originality, has been disconcerted to find a skeptic with strong convictions and a radical with conservative leanings. It has failed to grasp the nature of the double mind--the ability to see both sides of the mountain at once. Thinkers of this type are few [...]. They are not to be written off as undecided or vacillating. Their minds are simply multilinear and perspectivist: when Montaigne was playing with his cat, he wondered whether the cat was not perhaps playing with him."


"[H]ow mistaken are modern critics who keep complaining that science has made great progress in improving material life but has lagged in doing the same for the ethical. There was no progress to make. Men have known the principles of justice, decency, tolerance, magnanimity from an early date."


"In the United States at the present time the workings of "political correctness" in universities and the speech police that punishes person and corporations for words on cerain topics quaintly called "sensitive" are manifestations of the permanent spirit of inquisition."


"The sum of religion is peace, which can only be when definitions are as few as possible and opinion is left free on many subjects. Our present problems are said to be waiting for the next Ecumenical Council. Better let them wait till we see God face to face."

--Erasmus, 1522

"The truth that religion and morality are at odds with each other is rarely acknowledged."


"Every age is "materialistic" and fit for deploring."

--Jacques Barzun, From Dawn To Decadence

"Blessed is he who finds me no hindrance to faith."

--Jesus, message to John the Baptist, Luke 7:23

Friday, April 04, 2003

A brief history of political philosophy, courtesy of OxBlog.

Also read the next post down, on Leviathans and the sense of wonder.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Old news: "If you want peace, prepare for war." New news: some UN weapons inspectors agree.

"[The skeletons in the haunted house] made an impression on her. I don’t want to tell her she has a skeleton inside her, though; she’d never go to sleep.

"Hell, that freaks ME out."


"When I go out there, I'm paying attention to the catcher's mitt, and that's it."

--Andy Pettitte, pitcher

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Eric Muller of IsThatLegal sez:

"By the way, I think the short answer to the question of whether Arnett is guilty of treason is "no"--but not because he lent the enemy no aid and comfort. It's because the crime of treason also requires proof of an intent to betray the United States, and I can't see any evidence of that here, let alone enough to get to a jury."

I stand corrected: I guess this is one of those rare cases where stupidity is a legitimate legal defense.

It's possible that Russia is just exceptionally bad at hiding its black-market arms dealing. It's also possible that this--statistics compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute--reflects reality.

As David Adesnik comments: "Seems the US wasn't exactly the only one supporting Iraq back in the day. Just the only who's decided to admit it was wrong."

Relatedly, it's all about oil.

The good news about Peter Arnett's idiocy is that all Iraqis with brains will simply assume that the regime put him up to it, as they did in this case. So the danger is probably phantasmal. But I think it should be noted that Arnett's "misjudgment" fits the rulebook definition of treason: giving direct aid to an enemy power during wartime. It's certainly not worth prosecuting, but the civil-liberties-are-in-dire-peril crowd could perhaps note that dissent is not in fact being suppressed, even when it does actually cross the line.

John Keegan is very smart:

"Somewhere in my collection of First World War ephemera I have a picture postcard of Blackpool, sent on August 6, 1914, two days after the outbreak, which reads: 'Dear Dot, All the trains have stopped, so we are staying until it is over.'
"The inability to read how military events are unfolding is not a new phenomenon. The writer of the postcard might be excused, however. In 1914 Britain had not been involved in a serious war for nearly 100 years.
"The headless chickens whose cluckings and splutterings currently fill the media are more blameworthy."

Keegan--possibly the greatest living military historian--goes on to analyze the current military situation. I'd summarize it thus: nothing seriously bad has happened yet. In war, that's wonderful news.